The U.S. and South Korea see defensive missiles as a shield against possible North Korean aggression. But the move is seen entirely differently in Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow.

missiles
A THAAD missile being test-fired at an undisclosed location in the U.S., 10 September 2013.
(EPA/Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency/Handout)

By Chae Lin Park

An ice hockey player from North Korea and a bobsledder from South Korea joined hands to hold the Unification Flag depicting a reunited Korean peninsula at the opening ceremony of the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The gesture symbolized efforts by North and South Korea to defuse tensions in the region and to use the Games to bridge gaps in ideology and politics.

But if more than six decades of division have taught us Koreans something, it is that relations between the North and South are volatile. Our governments can sit down together to discuss family reunions on one day, only to threaten each other with sanctions and missile tests the next.

Unless far-sighted solutions are proposed to resolve underlying differences, lasting peace will not come anytime soon to this region, threatened by nuclear weapons and entangled in complex alliances.

A debate over a missile defense system that Washington and Seoul decided to deploy in South Korea epitomizes the dialogue of the deaf that has characterized relations for decades between antagonists who never signed a peace treaty at the end of a three-year war that ended in 1953.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is a missile interception system that South Korea and the United States decided in 2016 to deploy over objections from North Korea and its northern neighbor, China.

Defensive measure or vicious move?

Seoul and Washington deployed THAAD “as a defensive measure to ensure the security of (South Korea) and its people, and to protect alliance military forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats,” the Pentagon said in a statement on July 7, 2016.

THAAD is designed to detect an enemy missile and destroy it before it inflicts damage. The decision to deploy THAAD followed four nuclear tests by North Korea and its continued testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

From the perspective of South Korea and the United States, THAAD is a defense system that protects South Korea’s vital interests from North Korean attack.

But the decision to deploy THAAD is viewed quite differently, not only in Pyongyang but also in Beijing and Moscow, where it is seen as a provocative challenge to regional security and the balance of power.

“The THAAD deployment is a direct product of the sinister ambition of the U.S. to dominate the world by holding its military hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and the south Korean puppet group’s vicious moves to escalate the confrontation with the fellow countrymen in the north in a bid to invade the north, backed by its master,” North Korea’s state news agency KCNA quoted the army as saying after the THAAD deployment was announced.

Pyongyang responded to the deployment announcement with more tests of long-range and submarine-launched missiles, seen as part of North Korea’s strategy to stymie THAAD by being able to launch more missiles than the system could intercept.

An even stronger reaction came from China, which responded by exercising both its economic and military power.

THAAD has driven China and Russia closer together.

Many Chinese feel that THAAD’s primary purpose, beyond providing some protection to South Korea, is to give the United States and its allies an upper hand strategically against Beijing.

South Korea’s biggest trade partner, China, hit Seoul where it hurt — by crimping business with companies, such as retail-to-chemicals giant Lotte Group, that cooperated on the THAAD deployment.

What is more, China stepped up development of technologies to counter the U.S.-South Korean move, such as Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) and Hypersonic Gliders (HGV), which can bypass missile interceptors like THAAD using their speed and last-minute dispersion techniques.

The deployment of THAAD has driven China and Russia, which share a border with North Korea, closer together diplomatically.

“The U.S. deployment of an advanced anti-missile system in South Korea gravely harms the strategic security interests of China, Russia and other countries in the region,” China’s state Xinhua news agency cited Chinese President Xi Jinping as telling Russian media in July 2017.

After Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow last July, they issued a joint statement saying “the deployment … of THAAD will cause serious harm to the strategic security interests of regional states, including Russia and China.”

So what Washington and Seoul might see as a rational, defensive move is viewed quite differently in Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. In the short term, at least, THAAD seems to have raised the security stakes in the region instead of defusing tension.

The debate over THAAD illustrates the immense security implications of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, which have entangled the world’s biggest military powers.

To defuse tensions, it will be necessary to build trust among all of the players so they can see eye-to-eye. Time will tell whether the diplomatic warming at the Winter Olympics will translate into mutual understanding, trust and sustained peace with our neighbors in the North.


Chae Lin Park is in her final year at the Chadwick International School in Incheon, South Korea, where she was born and raised. She enjoys reading, cooking, learning languages and volunteering at North Korean refugee support centers. She is interested in International Relations with a focus on human rights and law, and in the future she hopes to work as an international relations lawyer.

 

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